ELCA seminaries explore shared learning exchange

11/6/2015 10:00:00 AM

            CHICAGO (ELCA) – More than 70 representatives of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America's (ELCA) eight seminaries convened here Nov. 1 for a two-day session to envision what a  "common learning exchange" could mean for the church's theological education network.

            The unprecedented meeting of seminary presidents, board representatives, faculty and staff focused on the feasibility of the seminaries, each with a unique history, operating model and culture, to join in a common project to deliver a richer learning experience to current students and rostered leaders and broader ELCA audiences.
            The convener of the meeting, the Rev. James R. Nieman, president of the Lutheran School of Theology at Chicago (LSTC), serves as chair of the conference of seminary presidents and chief administrative officers. In opening remarks, Nieman said, "It is not an overstatement to say that this is a historic event. Never before has there been such a gathering of delegations from all ELCA seminaries seeking to rethink the future of theological education in our church."
            Huron Consulting Group facilitated the meeting after its staff visited each of the seminary campuses to interview and gain the perspectives of students, faculty and administrative leaders. Summarizing those campus conversations, the Huron consultants pointed to widespread student enthusiasm about being given access to a broader "menu" of courses and learning experiences than can be offered by any of the schools individually. Similarly, faculty members envisioned ways in which their teaching could be enhanced and their courses and publications spread more broadly through such an ELCA exchange.
            The seminary meeting acknowledged the work of the ELCA's Theological Education Advisory Council (TEAC), which recently issued recommendations slated for consideration by the ELCA Church Council later this month. Among its recommendations is a call for expanded collaborative ventures as may be possible if the schools are successful in efforts to create the learning exchange. The Rev. Robin Steinke, president of Luther Seminary in St. Paul, Minn., and co-chair of TEAC, said that "interest in a network-wide shared teaching and learning project was noted during the TEAC process as a way to address the need for more theological education across the church. The council affirmed the trajectory and exploration of this possibility with the hope that it would help us all address mission needs for more theological education available to multiple audiences in multiple modalities around the globe."
            The Huron consultation also offered current trends in online programs and professional studies across the United States and reviewed a case study from Northwestern University's School of Professional Studies, where alternative course scheduling and innovative pedagogies are deployed and a growing number of programs are offered online or are augmented by online components to residential learning.
            Participants generated ideas for courses that would address needs of emerging and practicing church leaders, curricular innovations, and uses in which the exchange would add value to theological education. They also imagined new kinds of educational offerings for non-degree students and for active lay learners in congregations across the church. More than simply a platform on which the schools would offer their growing number of online and "distributed learning" courses, such an exchange might enable students at each of the seminaries to take courses offered by faculty from any of the schools. The exchange could also enable faculty and administrators at the schools to conduct collaborative research, team teach, and realize cost savings by conducting some aspects of work together, as occurs in some large statewide university systems.
            The consultation also noted obstacles that get in the way of common efforts, such as differing calendars and unique curricular features of the eight schools as well as the collaboration of local, long-standing consortiums. And yet there was strong acknowledgment that none of the eight schools is able to offer the depth, scale and diversity of offerings that would become the hallmark of a combined learning exchange.

Growing good leaders
            Given the financial challenges faced by the seminaries, the chief executives expressed appreciation for a generous gift from the Dean and Rosemarie Buntrock Foundation, which made possible the consultation and Huron's work.
            Chicago residents, the Buntrocks attended portions of the consultation. In a gathering with the eight chief executives and the Rev. Jonathan Strandjord, director for ELCA seminaries, the Buntrocks expressed their enthusiasm and appreciation for the spirit in which the seminaries are attempting to further strengthen the formation of church leaders well-equipped to serve congregations and other ministries of the church.
            Commenting on the impact of parish pastors, Rosemarie Buntrock said, "You don't bring people to church without a good leader." Reflecting on his long career as chief executive of a major international corporation, Dean Buntrock acknowledged that seminary leaders will face challenges in leading their schools to work in new patterns.
            Acknowledging the complex governance in schools, wherein faculty, staff, trustees, students, alumni, bishops and other church leaders all have a voice in a school's directions, Buntrock stated, "Your seminaries are even more complex than a business." He expressed confidence that collaboration among the schools can be enhanced: "We are very excited about the possibilities. It's really rewarding to see how much effort everyone is giving the project."
            Speaking for the leaders of the eight seminaries Neiman said, "We are behind this" effort, and that "while we see a recognizable set of risks in a learning exchange, we see far greater reward and gain for the mission and reach of theological education in the ELCA."
            Huron consultants will compile the input from the retreat participants along with additional research and report after mid-December on the outcomes and next steps toward the envisioned learning exchange.
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About the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America:
The ELCA is one of the largest Christian denominations in the United States, with more than 3.7 million members in more than 9,300 congregations across the 50 states and in the Caribbean region. Known as the church of "God's work. Our hands," the ELCA emphasizes the saving grace of God through faith in Jesus Christ, unity among Christians and service in the world. The ELCA's roots are in the writings of the German church reformer, Martin Luther.

*The Rev. John R. Spangler is executive assistant to the president at the Lutheran Theological Seminary at Gettysburg (Pa).

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Melissa Ramirez Cooper
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773-380-2956 or Melissa.RamirezCooper@elca.org
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